With a slight pause of bemusement and images of uncomfortable ice breakers or role play scenarios flashing across my mind – we all found a place to stand. After a moment of silence, we were then asked to find someone at the opposite end of the room and have a conversation. The room filled with energy as commissioners, providers, clinicians and patient leads took the time to actively listen to each other.
There is something about the simplicity of listening that can be very powerful.
Last week, I met with someone whose views were in direct opposition to me – I felt a surge of anxiety, bristling discomfort and began to feel offended – a range of emotions churned up in me. The quality of my listening was deteriorating as I was simultaneously putting on my internal protective body armour whilst my brain was thinking of astute, forthright and convincing responses. It would have been easy to avoid this person for the next few weeks but much harder to re-engage and to understand their perspective.
Through her book, Time to Think, Nancy Kline tells the story of Dan who, as part of the “Thinking Environment” approach was allowed to speak about a controversial topic with no interruptions. She demonstrates the power of creating a safe space where time is set aside to hear what people have to say and how this can lead to clarity and understanding.
Thinking about our typical meetings, there are so many decisions to be made and so many tasks to complete, that the art of listening to the uncomfortable perspective can be lost. We are under pressure to make decisions, set deadlines, meet targets. There is an unspoken dynamic where the probability of being heard is dependent on how a person is perceived, where they are in the hierarchy, how loud their voices are or how quickly they can think of a witty response (reflective thinkers can miss out in this world). The conversation feels like a train steaming towards a particular destination. If by chance a small voice speaks up with a different message which could potentially derail the direction of travel there can be a very slight pause, a moment of discomfort and then the foot goes back onto the accelerator so we can reach our planned destination. The risk is that amongst all the activity it is the uncomfortable voices that can be drowned out.
A colleague* shared with us, an excellent TED talk by the writer Chimamanda Adichie “The Danger of a Single Story“. In her moving account, Chimamanda describes how we develop our own stories about different groups of people and how this impacts on our behaviour and attitudes towards these groups. I have seen this happen in NHS meetings, where a person will comment “clinicians don’t think this”, “commissioners never listen”, “working with patient groups can be challenging” and then, if the story is told enough times, we begin to believe our own myths.
So what about that person with the challenging perspective? You can tell many stories about how they just don’t see sense, they have no idea about what you have to deal with, and they are creating instability. You are standing at one end of the room and that person is standing at the other end.
Will you cross the room to hear their perspective, or will you walk away?
* Thanks to Heather Caudle for sharing this excellent link